With the transition into the new year, pervasive talk of weight loss and diet culture are in full swing. While many see the new year as an opportunity to make resolutions for weight loss and unnecessary body alterations, the danger that these efforts may pose both emotionally and physically, especially to college students, is often overlooked.
It seems that young people already have a more exacerbated concern over their weight and body image than other age groups. With fears of gaining the “Freshman 15” to comparisons on social media or pressures to look the same as one may have looked after leaving home, college-aged people face a unique set of challenges fueling weight loss and body image insecurities.
Talk of counting calories, diets and food regimens like intermittent fasting run rampant through campus. Unfortunately, few students are aware that there is little evidence even supporting a 15-pound weight gain in their freshman year; nor is there much evidence supporting the benefits of restrictive fad dieting.
Several studies have been conducted debunking the myths associated with a 15-pound weight gain.
A 2008 study conducted by the University of Utah indicated that college freshman experienced only an average 2.7-pound weight gain. Meanwhile, a 2011 study conducted at Boston University found that only 10% of college students actually gain 15 pounds, yet this was associated with binge drinking. The same study also found that a quarter of freshmen actually end up losing weight in their first year.
Jay Zagorsky, a researcher behind the 2011 study, said that most people gain weight as they get older, but it is not attributed to college but instead to simply becoming a young adult.
Along with the lack of evidence proving a substantial weight gain in college, students may also find themselves believing many of the false promises made by the powerful dieting industry.
A National Institute of Health study found that 80% of obese people who lose weight on a diet will end up gaining it back. In the same study, the NIH observed that even people who are not obese but lose weight on a diet will gain back two to four pounds a year to make up for it.
Weight gain after dieting is the result of a slowed metabolism, which is prompted by restriction. Once a body returns to more normalized eating patterns, it takes time for its metabolism to adjust, subsequently resulting in weight gain.
Despite the evidence against diets’ effectiveness, the weight-loss industry has continued to flourish, projecting to reach a market value of $278.95 billion in 2023, up from its 2016 value of $168.95 billion. Instead of helping those in need of weight loss though, the industry seems to capitalize on the fears and insecurities of consumers.
Utilizing social media as a way to market their products, through influencers to promote toning, slimming and fat-burning products, the diet industry sends messages that exploit insecurities rather than those that empower and uplift. This methodology of marketing tends to target college-aged students, as their age group is the most active on these platforms.
It is important to consider the psychological implications of engagement with diet culture. Diet culture messages not only reinforce poor self-esteem and body image dissatisfaction, but it may contribute to the normalization of disordered eating.
At a time when young people show increasing concerns over their mental health and well-being, it is ever more important to be critical of the harmful effects of trends and fads, like weight-loss resolutions.
While the trend of losing weight and restricting or changing one’s body may continue even beyond the new year, young people ought to be mindful of the ways in which such practices might only further the strains placed on their emotional and mental well-being.
On a campus filled with students capable of making well-informed decisions, perhaps new resolutions should shift away from following industry-produced regiments and diets, and instead move toward other avenues of self-improvement.